Pulling Rank

I got an e-mail from a reader who says: "You've talked about how you're polyamorous, which I understand to mean you have more than one sexual/romantic partner. How does that work, exactly? Do you live together? Is this like a group marriage, or what?"

Group marriage? No fucking thank you very much. I've seen such arrangements, and they're not for me. I have little enough closet space as it is.

No, I do a primary/secondary system of polyamory. I live with Max, who is my primary partner, and in most ways our relationship looks like that of any other cohabitating couple. But we both have secondary partners. We don't live with them, but we go on dates with them, we have sex with them, we invite them over for Thanksgiving dinner-- everybody knows everybody, and it's all very civilized.

Now, to some poly people, admitting that you formally designate people as "secondary" is a big no-no. "I don't use primary/secondary terminology," they say, "because I care for all my partners equally. My relationships aren't hierarchical." Now I'm sure that somewhere there are sweet, idealistic poly people who really believe this is true. I've never met those people. I have, however, met people who say it just to get someone into bed, so you'll pardon me for being a tad skeptical.

I think the reason the primary/secondary model gets a bad rap among poly people is because it's non-egalitarian. Primary partners have rights and privileges that secondary partners don't. For example, Max and I have some veto power over whom we each get involved with. We have unprotected sex with each other, but use protection with everyone else. But since Max and I are into dominance/submission anyway, we're not terribly worried about not granting our secondaries equal rights.

The sweet side of being a secondary partner is this: You get the fun of the courtship--the flirtation, the erotic-tension-filled dates, hot sex--without having to worry about "where the relationship is going." Yes, being a secondary when you want to be a primary would suck--been there, done that. But that's not a given. Sometimes one person's secondary partner is happily primary-partnered elsewhere. And sometimes people just don't want a primary relationship. There are certainly plenty of people with whom I've enjoyed uncommitted flirtation, friendship, fondness, and fucking, with no regrets on either side. And I'll always love them for not having encroached on my closet space.

matisse@thestranger.com